“If the Negro Died, It Would Have Been Perfect”

Stanley Puryear

In the early morning hours of May 2, 1932, Memphis police detective W.M. (Doc) Davis was having trouble sleeping and was trying to beat a game of solitaire when he heard three loud booms near his home. He knew that they were shotgun blasts. And as Davis lived in one of the nicer sections of town, he also knew no one should be firing weapons in that area without a really good reason.
 
Heading in the direction of the shots he came across Will Jamison, a black man, clutching his chest and stumbling down an alley. From somewhere nearby a man was screaming over and over that Jamison had killed his wife and daughter.
 
Five houses away from Davis’s home stood Stanley Puryear, 38, dressed in a night shirt and carrying a bloody axe. Puryear told Davis that “a Negro had killed his wife and little girl,” Davis testified later. “He blasted the man with a shotgun and pleaded for more shells to finish him off.”
 
Jamison was obviously near death and begged Davis to remove his shoes. Apparently dying with his boots on was too much for the man to bear, trial testimony revealed:
 
“Boss, give me a drink of water and take my shoes off,” Jamison said, holding his left side which showed a gaping hole where Puryear had shot him. “I don’t want to die with them on. I know I am dying.”
 
Davis stood over the dying man and asked: “Who shot you, boy?”
 
Jamison could not provide a name, but responded that it was “a red-faced middle-aged man.”
 
“He picked me up on Beale Street and promised me $3 if I helped him move some whiskey,” Jamison gasped. “He took me to his house and went in. I stayed out in the garage. After about 30 minutes I started in. When I got to the door, he shot me. I turned and ran. Then he shot me again.”
 
Davis’s response showed that at the time he doubted Jamison’s story.
 
“He ought to have shot you boy,” the detective said. “You killed his wife and daughter.”
 
Addressing the cop once again as “boss,” Jamison denied anything to do with the crime.
 
“I ain’t got no reason to lie to y’all,” he said. “I ain’t seen no white woman and baby. I ain’t done nothing. He just called me to the door and shot me.”
 
This dying declaration was the last statement Jamison was able to make about the crime before he died the next day.
 
While Davis was accompanying Jamison to the Negro hospital in Memphis, police descended on the pleasant bungalow in what was then (and still may be for all we know) Memphis’s “Gold Coast” where Stanley Puryear lived with his wife, Zenia, son Porter, and daughter Aurelia.
 
Contemporary reports dramatically state that “while neighbors hurriedly drew on clothes, the sirens of ambulances and police radio cars filled the morning air as they rushed to the scene.”
 
Aurelia PuryearInside the home on South Parkway Drive, in the bed that Zenia, 38, and 8-year-old Aurelia shared, police found a bloody scene. The victims had been struck several times with an axe, most likely the one that Puryear carried when Davis saw him. Both mother and daughter were alive but unconscious, and died before they were able to shed any light on the crime.
 
Although police had no reason yet to doubt Puryear’s claim, and Jamison was unconscious and dying, the automobile parts salesman did not do anything to strengthen his claim that Jamison had broken into the house and killed the woman and girl he found there. At the time Aurelia died in the emergency room, Puryear was drinking coffee in the hospital cafeteria with 11-year-old Porter. Meanwhile, while Zenia was dying, Puryear was busy calling his attorneys, who prevented police from talking to the bereaved man at the hospital. Puryear returned to the emergency room just in time to see Zenia succumb to her wounds.
 
However, at the double funeral Puryear demonstrated substantial grief, falling over the two coffins and weeping uncontrollably.
 
Days later in the company of his attorneys, Puryear gave a full interview with police where he denied everything Jamison said.
 
According to Puryear, the family went to bed about 10 p.m. on the night of the murders. It was family practice for Zenia and Aurelia to sleep in one bedroom at the front of the house while Porter and Puryear shared a bedroom in the back. If the police considered this arrangement odd, the record does not reflect it.
 
Puryear was an overweight diabetic who said he arose around midnight to take a shot of insulin. He was unable to return to sleep so he decided to head to his car repair shop to check on the night watchman who allegedly had a tendency to fall asleep on the job. He told police he was back at the house by 3 a.m. and went to sleep, only to be awakened by his wife’s screams.
 
“I jumped out of bed and saw a Negro standing in the doorway leading to my wife’s room,” he testified later. “I grabbed a shotgun and started after the the Negro. He had an axe in his hand and stopped and faced me. I shot him. I shot him again and he stumbled off.”
 
At that time police still considered Jamison’s statements to be a desperate effort of a guilty, dying man to clear himself.
 
Davis, meanwhile, had done a bit of detective work and was puzzled by Puryear’s statement. On the night of the murder the cop had put his hand on the hood of Puryear’s car — several hours after the murders — and found the radiator still very warm to the touch. To him that meant that Puryear was lying about when he returned home.
 
Davis also noticed that Puryear’s nightshirt was neither wrinkled nor bloody, despite the man’s claims that he had fallen asleep and gone to his wife’s aid after he heard her scream. The amount of blood at the scene almost guaranteed that Puryear would have had at least some blood on him.
 
Sunshine WalkerIn a case like the Puryear murders, police receive lots of tips and soon reporters learned that the Memphis police were trying to locate a “flame-haired divorcee named Sunshine.”
 
(Other reporters, also apparently attracted to brazen-headed women, described her as “strikingly beautiful red-haired Mary Sunshine Walker,” which was her full name.)
 
Sunshine was the daughter of a wealthy Mississippi planter and “trusted federal seed loan executive.” Apparently, on the day following the murders, Sunshine, who was living in Memphis, received a “mysterious” phone call around 1:30 p.m., announced that she was going to the restroom, and promptly disappeared.
 
The phone call came at about the same time that Puryear was visiting his brother, a well-to-do druggist with a store in the Memphis Loop. Puryear arrived at the house about 15 minutes before Sunshine received her mysterious phone call.
 
Inspector William T. Griffin, head of the Memphis homicide squad requested that Puryear come to the bureau to “aid in solving the murder of his wife and child.” Puryear agreed, and showed up shortly after with a retinue of three attorneys. Griffin informed Puryear that he believed the man had not told all he knew and placed him under arrest.
 
Two days after Puryear was placed into custody — and after three unsuccessful habeas corpus hearings intended to free the auto parts dealer — Sunshine was located in a small Mississippi town by an investigator from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. She voluntarily returned to Tennessee and denied any involvement in the case.
 
Despite his arrest, Puryear had the support of not only his own family, but from three sisters of Zenia who expressed their complete belief in their brother-in-law’s innocence. The sisters swore that Zenia and husband lived in complete happiness and that Puryear treated his wife “in the best of manners.” Friends and neighbors agreed that the family was a model group and that Zenia and Puryear were sweethearts.
 
That didn’t matter to the state which obtained three murder indictments against Puryear. Prosecutors opted for three separate trials, starting with the murder of Will Jamison. In a move almost unheard of at the time in a southern state, the state asked for the death penalty against a white man for killing a black man.
 
During the 23-day trial, the state sought to prove that Puryear had carefully planned the murder of his wife and tried to make Jamison the fall guy. Aurelia had to die when she woke up during the assault of her mother. The crime would probably have been laid at the feet of Jamison if Puryear had been a more accurate shot.
 
“If the Negro had died immediately, it would have been the perfect crime,” Attorney General W. T. McLain said.
 
Jurors needed a motive for the murder, and that’s where Sunshine entered the picture. Despite claims from Puryear’s family that Sunshine was nothing more than a family friend, the state alleged that Puryear and the divorcee were lovers who were blocked from marrying.
 
“Mrs. Puryear’s religion would not permit her to divorce her husband,” the prosecutor told jurors. “Sunshine was threatening to marry another man.
 
“Puryear was desperate. He had to be free so that he could marry Sunshine. He planned and schemed until he had contrived this diabolical crime for which there is no fit term in the English language.”
 
There was more evidence than just a prosecutor’s supposition. In his first statement, Puryear told police that being unable to sleep, he went to check on his night watchman. The facts did not support his claim. The night watchman claimed that he had not seen his boss that evening and that seals the watchman placed on the office door had not been broken.
 
Other witnesses produced by the state testified that Puryear was seen on Beale Street, about four miles from his home in the early morning hours of May 2, near where Jamison said he was picked up by a white man.
 
The state did not call Sunshine to the stand, although it did call her maid who reported that Sunshine and Puryear were more than just friends. He apparently gave Sunshine a “glove-silk nightdress,” money, and a pair of red pajamas. Called for the defense, Sunshine denied her maid’s claims.
 
Puryear took the stand in his own defense, breaking down as he told of his feelings for his wife and daughter:
 
“God never made a better woman than my wife,” he wailed. “I loved her more than anything on earth. That baby was my life. I would have gone to hell before I’d have harmed a hair on her head.”
 
His testimony was not remarkable, merely following for the most part his statements to police.
 
Zenia’s three sisters also came before the court as character witnesses, and Porter testified in defense of his father as well.
 
“My mother’s dead,” he told the court. “My sister’s dead. They went to heaven. I’ll go to hell if I tell lies.”
 
When the case went to the jury on October 18, 1932, reports leaked out that jurors were deadlocked with six for acquittal and six for the electric chair. After 22 hours the jury reported it had a verdict in the case of the man who admitted killing Jamison: Puryear was acquitted.
 
Stunned, the prosecution reminded everyone that there were still two more indictments to try.
 
It would take a couple of mistrials, an overturned conviction, and nearly five more years before the State of Tennessee was able to convict Puryear of the murder of Zenia. Convicted at re-trial and sentenced to 20 years in prison, Puryear spent two years out on bail following while pursuing unsuccessful appeals. He suffered a fatal heart attack behind bars in 1941.